A Horrific Tale of Forgiveness

Mormon Hereticbooks, catholicism, christ, christianity, death, Holocaust, international, racism, women 9 Comments

I really miss my book club, but I am participating in the Stay LDS Book Club.  The first book that we have decided to read is Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza.  It is her story of the Rwandan Genocide.  I previously discussed the movie Hotel Rwanda, describing the events from Paul Russebagina’s point of view.  Immaculee has an incredibly inspiring story as well.  The book is intensely moving.

Growing up, Immaculee had no idea if she was a Hutu or a Tutsi.  Her parents had endured previous political unrest, and wanted to raise their children as if their tribe did not matter.  (It turns out she was a minority Tutsi.)  In 1994, this awful episode began, and she hid with 7 other women in a small bathroom.  She lost half her body weight, and spent literally 3 months praying.  (She is a Roman Catholic.)  The subtitle of the book is “Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust”.

She describes her attempt to forgive, even amidst this awful tragedy.  She describes a spiritual experience she had, while essentially witnessing a murder.  I don’t emotionally understand the experience, but I can slightly grasp it intellectually.  She describes hearing the murder of a Tutsi mother, and her child left to die:

page 93-94,

One night I heard screaming not far from the house, and then a baby crying.  The killers must have slain the mother and left her infant to die in the road.  The child wailed all night; by morning, its cries were feeble and sporadic, and by nightfall, it was silent.  I heard dogs snarling nearby and shivered as I thought about how that baby’s life had ended.  I prayed for God to receive the child’s innocent soul, and then I asked Him, How can I forgive people who would do such a thing to an infant?

I heard His answer as clearly as if we’d been sitting in the same room chatting: You are all my children…and the baby is with Me now.

It was such a simple sentence, but it was the answer to the prayers I’d been lost in for days.

The killers were like children.  Yes, they were barbaric creatures who would have to be punished severely for their actions, but they were still children.  They were cruel, vicious, and dangerous, as kids sometimes can be, but nevertheless, they were children.  They saw, but didn’t understand the terrible harm they’d inflicted.  They’d blindly hurt others without thinking, they’d hurt their Tutsi brothers and sisters, they’d hurt God–and they didn’t understand how badly they were hurting themselves.  Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil.  Despite their atrocities, they were children of God, and I could forgive a child, although it would not be easy…especially when that child was trying to kill me.

In God’s eyes, the killers were part of His family, deserving of love and forgiveness.  I knew that I couldn’t ask God to love me if I were unwilling to love His children.  At that moment, I prayed for the killers, for their sins to be forgiven.  I prayed that God would lead them to recognize the horrific error of their ways before their life on Earth ended–before they were called to acocunt for their mortal sins.

I held on to my father’s rosary and asked God to help me, and again I hear His voice: Forgive them, they know not what they do.

I took a crucial step toward forgiving the killers that day.  My anger was draining from me–I’d opened my heart to God, and He’d touched it with His infinite love.  For the first time, I pitied the killers.  I asked God to forgive their sins and turn their souls toward His beautiful light.

That night I prayed with a clear conscience and a clean haert.  For the first time since I entered the bathroom, I slept in peace.

I still can’t fathom her capacity to forgive.  It is awe-inspiring to me.  After the war, she met the man (one of her neighbors), that killed her parents, stole their property, and burned her home to the ground.  Semana, the jailhouse guard allowed her to see him so she could spit on him if she wanted.  From page 204,

“He looted your parents’ home and robbed your family’s plantation, Immaculee.  We found your dad’s farm machinery at his house, didn’t we?”  Semana yelled at Felicien.  “After he killed [your mother] Rose and [brother] Damascene, he kept looking for you…he wanted you dead so he could take over your property.  Didn’t you, pig?” Semana shouted again.

I flinched, letting out an involuntary gasp.  Semana looked at me, stunned by my reaction and confused by the tears streaming down my face.  He grabbed Felicien by the shirt collar and hauled him to his feet.  “What do you have to say to her?  What do you have to say to Immaculee?”

Felicien was sobbing.  I could feel his shame.  He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met.  I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say.

“I forgive you.”

My heart eased immediately, and I saw the tension release in Felicien’s shoulders before Semana pushed him out the door and into the courtyard.  Two soldiers yanked Felicien up by his armpits and dragged him back toward his cell.  When Semana returned, he was furious.

“What was that all about, Immaculee?”  that was the man who murdered your family.  I brought him to you to question…to spit on if you wanted to.  But you forgave him!  How could you do that?  Why did you forgive him?”

I answered him with all truth:  “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.”

I never want to experience a tragedy so awful.  I truly admire Immaculee’s capacity to forgive; she is a tremendous example of a Christian.

Comments 9

  1. MH–

    Thanks for posting this.

    Hotel Rwanda proved to be a powerful experience for those who saw it. It’s hard to imagine how hate and ignorance can join together in our day and age and result in so much death and misery and the “civilized” nations do next to nothing to help.

    The answer to her prayer is profound!

  2. the more I learn about the rwandan holocaust, the more I think it is worse than the jewish holocaust. the nazi’s made an effort to hide their atrocities, but the hutus were broadcasting death on the airwaves. they didn’t bother to bury the dead. a million people died in 3 months. it seems comparable to the book of mormon massacres. and they didn’t kill people with gas chambers. the preferred method of death was hacking people to death with machetes. I can’t imagine how depraved these killers were.

  3. “Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil. Despite their atrocities, they were children of God…”


    The Calvinist take is that we are most emphatically not all “children of God.” The elect are. The rest are children of Wrath.

    Scripture has plenty of passages that bear this out: “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” (1 John 3:10.) “And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.” (Alma 30:60.) “And that great pit, which hath been digged for them by that great and abominable church, which was founded by the devil and his children…” (1 Nephi 14:3.)

    “Children of God” means different things in different contexts. In one sense, in Mormon theology, all humanity are children of God, in the sense that God is the father of our spirits. In another sense, scripture speaks of people becoming children of God only by being adopted, or spiritually begotten, at some point during the conversion process. It follows that until then, we are not “God’s children” in the fullest sense of the word.

    Immaculee’s is a beautiful story of forgiveness — she is a true child of God, in the fullest sense — but I just can’t agree with this statement: “Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil.” Yes, they were. Evil as their father the Devil, deep-dyed to the bone. I hear shades of Anne Frank’s “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are basically good.” Purblind Pelagian nonsense. The natural man is the enemy to God, and for the vast majority of human history, when human nature hasn’t been restrained by civilization, that fact has been obvious.

    The grace Immaculee received and showed in her forgiveness, is actually magnified, when it’s understood as having driven her to forgive, not innocent but misguided children, but rather stone-cold satanic souls with only a flicker of divinity left in them. Minimizing the evil of her brutalizers actually sells the profundity of her forgiveness short.

  4. Thomas, I’m not so sure.

    However, the book does drive home the point that forgiveness benefits the one forgiving. Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy will die.

  5. May I also suggest another book.”Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl.” by Linda Brent. It is the only slave narrative written by a woman. Some parts will make you angry. Some will make you marvel at the strength of her endurance. At any rate, it makes you fully understand how it was to be a slave from the viewpoint of a woman. It is an excellent book. I highly recommend it.

  6. “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy will die.”

    Oh, absolutely. Witness the dysfunction of cultures in the United States, and elsewhere, with strong traditions of resentment.

    I did appreciate the author’s acknowledgment, “Yes, they were barbaric creatures who would have to be punished severely for their actions…” Forgiving people doesn’t mean you don’t work for justice to be done. It means that when justice is being done, and the murderer is punished, you can forgive him. Or, if for some reason justice can’t be done in this life, you still forgive, though you trust that justice will ultimately be done.

    Ironically, in the specific case of the Rwandan genocide, the cultural impetus was resentment. The Tutsis were like European Jews — despised not because (as some narratives have it) they were dysfunctional, but rather because they were too successful. Like the Chinese of Malaya or the Indians of Fiji, they were more successful than the local majority, which (rather than look inward at the causes of their own backwardness) determined to believe that the successful ones were rich at the majority’s expense. And that economic-based resentment literally destroyed souls.

  7. May I recommend a few books on Rwanda as well? First, French author Jean Hatzfeld went and interviewed both survivors and genocidaires and published a book on the stories each of them told. We tend to focus on these stories of forgiveness and renewal as you’ve outlined. And they are amazing stories that show the depths of the potential for goodness in humanity even in the face of evil. But we shouldn’t let that obscure the much darker reality much people spend the rest of their lives living after something as horrific as genocide. The survivor stories Hatzfeld gathers are intimate and mostly dark accounts of lives shattered, people living numb even years later, half-living and half-dead. I believe there is healing in the afterlife. But I think we need to remember that for many (most?) people who have ever lived on earth, life has been short dark and brutal. I think most people will find amazing healing in the spirit world, but we need to acknowledge just how hard and bitter their experiences here and now are. I swear I am an optimist in the long run, but I’ll admit I find acknowledging the darkness an important precursor to understanding the light we eventually get to see. And in a case like Rwanda, or the Congo, or any number of similar horrors, I don’t think we should try to bury the horror with feel-good stories. It cheapens the suffering. Oh geez, that sounds harsh. I don’t mean it as a slam on the author of the post here, it’s a good post, but just take it as the flip side of the coin that is also worth seeing. Anyhow, Jean Hatzfeld’s book of interviews with the survivors is:

    Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak

    His book of interviews with the genocidaires is perhaps even more eye-opening. What makes a person a killer? How could anyone do such a thing? You listen to what the killers say years after and sometimes you see evasion, sometimes you see brutal honesty, sometimes you see denial that probably goes right to the core of the person themself, and everything inbetween. And above all what you see is how these are for the most part not the minds of people inherently evil and incomprehensible. They are eerily normal if clearly extremely warped now by what they did. The book is:

    Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak

    Finally, I’m not a fan of praising the great white savior of the dark man as too many times our history and our news coverage of conflicts around the world tends to do. But I have to say that there were in Rwanda a few…I’m almost wanting to say heroes, but how can you have a hero in something that came out so horrid in the end? Paul Kagame was clearly one. Don’t get me wrong, the man has an endless list of his own sins and only God can judge if his principles and courage exhibited in 1994 absolve him of all else in his life especially in the Congo post-genocide. But in 1994, standing on principles of equality he halted revenge attacks even as the RPF fighters methodically swept the country ending the genocide (he had some of his own soldiers executed who had killed people in anger and grief when they discovered their entire families had been slaughtered in the genocide, Kagame insisted on keeping his forces disciplined), and he worked to establish the basis of post-genocide society as non-sectarian after a century of Belgian, French, and Hutu Power promotion of sectarianism. I give him credit where credit is due. Then there were the resisters at Bisesero (http://www.cnlg.gov.rw/sites/bisesero/pages/bisesero-2.htm) who when everyone else was understandably giving up hope and submitting to their fate, chose to resist even if for just a few days more. They died by the tens of thousands, but they went down fighting evil and rightfully deserve the heroes. But in all this mess I do credit one white westerner and a few of his compatriots as heroes as well. Romeo Dallaire, the French Canadian general at the head of UNAMIR, the UN force in Rwanda (sort of played by Nick Nolte in Hotel Rwanda, which I have to say I didn’t like as much as other people, it just didn’t reflect the harsh realities or complexities of what happened I thought…but still, glad the film was made and raised awareness). It shouldn’t be left at him by any means nor would he have it be so. He had an incredibly small but effective contingent of troops from Ghana and another from Tunisia who saved many lives – a small number in the end considering how many died, but they risked their lives day in and day out to save those they could. And Dallaire led them from the front the whole way through, making do with very limited resources and quickly showing an amazing ability to know how to work with even people utterly consumed by evil to salvage some scraps out of the wreckage. Dallaire realized the UN, the US, the French, the Belgians, the whole world had willfully abandoned Rwanda to its fate and that only the RPF in the end would put a stop to it. But he decided he was going to (1) not let the world hide from it, they were going to see full on in the face to the best of his ability exactly what they were allowing to happend, and (2) where he could save lives with his meager resources, he would. I can’t possibly go through the whole story, but his book which is part autobiography and mostly a daily blow-by-blow account of the genocide as seen from his perch at UNAMIR is a must read in my view. It is:

    Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

    There’s also a documentary you can get on DVD of the same title which followed Dallaire I think a decade later when he went back and is very worth a watch:


    I think there’s a movie of the same title that was made too, I haven’t seen that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *